Sunday, May 23, 2010

Korean Rice Bowl

I've been eating a good deal of Korean food lately, so I thought I would try it at home. The April 2010 issue of Bon Appetit had a recipe for an easy take on a classic Korean dish that I thought would be perfect for a weeknight dinner.

Korean Rice Bowl

Bibimbap is pretty much the poster child of Korean food. It's as much of an icon as pho is for Vietnam, tikka masala is for India, and spaghetti and meatballs are for Italy. In classic bibimbap, a combination of vegetables and bulgogi beef are served on top of rice with a spicy sauce and a fried egg is placed right on top. If you order bibimbap in a dol sot (a hot stone pot), the dish comes out sizzling and the egg starts off raw but cooks as you mix the food around.

In this simplified version, rice is served with slices of strip steak, asparagus sauteed with garlic and sesame, and, in keeping with tradition, a fried egg is put right on top. Add a side of kimchi and you're set. I enjoyed this dinner immensely because it felt rather healthy and fulfilling. When you see all of the ingredients in the final product, it feels so elemental. The fried egg helped to add some unxiousness to the dish after I popped the yolk and let it run into the rice. This version of the Korean staple is simplified, but it also maintains a combination of clean and satisfying flavors.

Banana "Ice Cream"

How many recipes that you know of have exactly one ingredient? Not many I would suspect. Even if you are just sauteing some spinach, you still need oil, salt and other seasonings to make it interesting. Well I have finally found a one-ingredient dessert that is as healthy as grabbing a piece of fruit.

Banana "Ice Cream"
Makes approximately 4 servings

4 bananas

Frozen Banana Slices

When the bananas are to the ripeness you like, slice them up. Either place them in a plastic container or lay them out individually on a baking sheet and put them in the freezer. With the baking sheet method, you obviously need more space, but you will also avoid the problem of the slices sticking together. After the bananas are frozen, be sure they are moved into an airtight container until you are ready to make dessert. This is also a good method for preparing bananas for smoothies that avoids adding tons of ice to the mix.

When you're ready to finish the recipe, remove the bananas from the freezer. Transfer the slices to a large food processor. Turn on the food processor and let it run until the bananas form a smooth paste. This will be very loud at first as your food processor struggles against the icy bananas, but soon it will chop them into a lot of small bits that will start to melt and meld together into the final product. Remove the pureed frozen bananas, place them in an airtight container and place back in the freezer to firm up, at least 30 minutes.

Banana Ice Cream

Remove the "ice cream" from the freezer and scoop into bowls. I recommend one scoop as a good serving size since it seems that you get four servings from pureeing four bananas. The one drawback of this very simple method is that the ice cream can be a little dense and icy. Since we did not use an ice cream maker to slowly freeze and churn the bananas, larger ice crystals can form. But if you let the ice cream sit out for a couple minutes, it will soften up. Other than that, this is one of the healthiest desserts I've ever made. It involves no addition of other sources of calories and it is 100% fruit. You taste nothing but unadulterated banana goodness. No fake flavors here (think Laffy Taffy) or strange additives. This is the perfect treat if you are watching your calories or if you want a break from overly processed foods.

Banana Ice Cream with Strawberry Jam

If you do want to add some interest, feel free to doctor up this recipe as you wish. You can make a sundae out of it or just add your favorite ice cream accompaniment. I added some of my homemade strawberry jam, but you can use chocolate sauce, whipped cream, nuts, maybe even peanut butter if you're so inclined. Granted, this does deter from the healthiness of this dessert, but you start with a healthy base so a few more calories won't hurt, right?

Strawberry-Lime Cupcakes

With the close of strawberry season, this will be my last in this series of berry-inspired eats. I stumbled across this cupcake recipe a few years ago and knew I would make it some day because it combines some of my favorite flavors. I just had to wait for the right place (Durham) at the right time (the peak of berry season). When making a recipe that showcases a particular ingredient, you want to get it at its prime. So now this fruit treat has come to fruition.

Strawberry-Lime Cupcakes
Adapted from Food Network, makes 6 large cupcakes

1.5 cup flour
1.5 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 eggs
2/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk
1 1/3 cup powdered sugar
1.5 tbsp lime zest
2 tbsp lime juice
1 drop green food coloring
6 strawberries, hulled

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a jumbo muffin tin with cooking spray. Whisk flour, baking powder and salt together in a medium bowl.

Using a standing mixer or an electric beater, beat the eggs and sugar until light and foamy, about 2 minutes. While beating, gradually add the butter and vanilla. Turn mixer to slow and gradually add half the flour mixture. Mix in all of the milk, then the other half of the flour mixture. Divide batter evenly amongst muffin cups.

Bake cupcakes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 25-30 minutes. Remove from oven and cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then remove and cool completely on a wire rack.

To make the icing, whisk the powdered sugar, lime zest and lime juice in a medium bowl. You can add more lime juice if your icing is still too thick to spread. Mix in food coloring to make a pale green color.

Inserting the Strawberry

Use a paring knife to cut a cone out of the center of the cupcake. Don't worry if it takes a couple of tries to get the hole big enough. Just be sure not to cut all the way through the cupcake. Insert one hulled strawberry into the opening.

Hiding the Strawberry

Cover the strawberry with part of the cupcake that was removed. I took the cone of cake and cut off the top part to help hide the berry. This does not have to be that pretty or complete as you have icing to hide any imperfections.

Strawberry-Lime Cupcakes

Spread the icing over the tops of the cakes. Try to make it as even as possible. Garnish with mint leaves, if desired.

Hidden Strawberry Surprise

The end result is a large, delicious treat bearing a hidden surprise inside. I prefer to keep my baked goods a mystery, especially when they are stuffed with something and let tasters find it on their own. The cake itself is a simple white cake with good sweetness and vanilla flavor. The lime icing really brings it all together with a sweet-tartness to accentuate the berry and add interest to the cake without overwhelming it with too much sugar. If you use the mint, it adds an almost mojito like taste to the cupcake, which now makes me want to try making a mojito with strawberries muddled together with the mint. I would definitely make these if you want to wow some friends, family or coworkers. These cupcakes are an excellent coup de grace for what has been a delicious whirlwind of a strawberry season.

White Chocolate Strawberries

One of the classic and elegant ways of preparing strawberries is to simply dip them in chocolate. In fact, I don't believe I've ever had a chocolate-berry combination that I did not like. And another of my goals for this season's haul was to make my own chocolate-dipped strawberries. Had I known this was so easy and tasty, I would have been doing this myself years ago.

White Chocolate Strawberries

White Chocolate Strawberries with a Twist
From Bon Appetit, makes 16

2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp orange zest, chopped
1/2 tsp lemon zest, chopped
6 oz white chocolate, chopped
16 large, ripe strawberries

Line a baking sheet with foil or a silicone mat. Using fingers, mix sugar and citrus zests in a small bowl until well mixed. Be sure to chop the zest, otherwise you'll end up with larger globs of this citrus sugar that aren't as appealing to the eye.

Melt chocolate either over a double boiler (in a glass bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water) or in short bursts in the microwave. Stir to be sure it is smooth.

Hold strawberry by its leaves and dip into chocolate. Allow excess to fall off the berry. Turn berry pointed-end-up and sprinkle with the citrus sugar. Place on baking sheet. Repeat with remaining berries. Chill in the fridge until the chocolate sets (room temperature just doesn't do the trick).

The best part about these berries is that the citrus really livens the flavor of the berry. I've come to appreciate that when pairing strawberries with other flavors, it is a good idea to play off of their bright zestiness. Champagne pairs well because of the effervescence. Citrus flavors, particularly lime and orange, go very well with berries too. A balsamic vinegar-based sauce is also an excellent option. In this recipe, the white chocolate (a more subdued chocolate since it is more vanilla than cocoa) provides a nice base for the citrus, both in structure and in taste. The citrus is more subdued than I originally thought, so it does not overwhelm the senses and allows the chocolate and the berries to shine through. If you're not in the mood to bake a dessert, these berries are a quick crowd-pleaser.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Strawberry-Turkey Panino

After an afternoon of jamming, I wanted a strawberry-themed lunch without resorting to a salad. Luckily, Southern Living had a recipe for a sandwich using fresh strawberries. I changed a little bit to suit my own needs and pantry, but the spirit of the sandwich remains the same.

Building the Panino

I started with two slices of whole wheat bread and built my sandwich containing 5 slices of smoked turkey lunch meat, 1 slice of muenster cheese, 4 basil leaves, and three sliced strawberries. Be sure to keep the cheese to the outside and the berries and basil to the inside of the sandwich to get the cheese melty but the produce still whole.

Panini Press

For equipment, I used my George Foreman grill. No need to buy a separate panini press when a nearly ubiquitous Foreman grill works just as well. I buttered both sides of the sandwich to get a good crust and put the sandwich on for just a couple minutes.

Strawberry-Turkey Panino

In less than five minutes I made myself a hot and berry-licious lunch sandwich. The original recipe calls for brie instead of muenster, but I feel they both work well with the strawberries and the turkey. The cheese doesn't overwhelm the smokey flavor of the meat or the luscious berries. And the basil adds a fresh pop of licoriceness to add extra intrigue. I would recommend using a sturdier bread such as Italian when making the sandwich so it does not look quite as flattened as mine, but other than that this idea for a lunch is both simple and flavorful.

I don't like to harp on grammar since I'm sure I make all sorts of egregious errors, but it is worth noting something that has been bothering me for some time. The Italian word for "sandwich" is "panino." When plural, it becomes "panini." So if you are referring to a single grilled sandwich, it is a panino, not a panini. And, worst of all, "paninis" is not a word as it would be the same as saying "sandwhicheses." We all have our pet peeves and this just happens to be one of mine, so thanks for bearing with me.

Strawberry Jam

Warning: Anyone who does not find strawberries to be gifts from the heavens, rubies of pure indulgence or seed-studded sensations should pay no attention to the following series of posts. With nine pounds of strawberries in my fridge, I have been having a berry-fest to use all of these wonderful fruits while they're still at their prime. Ever since last year's picking season, I've wanted to make strawberry jam and now that I have the raw materials, I've finally realized this goal.

Jam making is both easy and difficult. Grandmothers have been jamming and canning for generations and passing their bounty (for ill or for good) onto their progeny. But for as straightforward as it can seem, there are many paths that lead to the same goal - spreadable, sweet fruit spread. All jams contain berries (duh), but the rest depends on how much work you want to do. If you want a firmer jam, you need pectin since strawberries have little natural pectin. You also need inhibit the growth of bacteria somehow. There are two main methods used - cold or heat. With cold, you have freezer jam where your end product sits in the freezer. The bitter cold prevents bacteria from growing. With heat, you have to immerse the jars of jam in boiling water for 10ish minutes in order to kill the bacteria either on the jar or in the jam. This method also seals the jar so it is stable at room temperature since it is (nearly) sterile.

I perused the internet to find my path and found it at Pick Your Own. These are step-by-step directions for strawberry jam using the heat method featuring many pictures and charts to help you on your way. I won't detail every step since the author(s) of that website have done a far better job than I (it is very difficult to remember to take pictures when your stirring molten berries or burning yourself with boiling water). I just want to point out some crucial details during the whole process.

First of all, make sure you have all of the ingredients before you start. In most cases this is a no-brainer since you know you need strawberries and most people have sugar on hand. I did not read the directions all the way through and did not see that you need 1-2 boxes of pectin (available in grocery stores by jamming and canning supplies). I would also HIGHLY recommend buying a ladle, a jar grabber and possibly a canner pot. Careful ladling makes the jar funnel unnecessary. The jar grabber is a pair of tongs modified for picking up jars by their necks while they're boiling. Don't assume you can do without because I definitely had to MacGyver a method mid-boil. I also have a very tall soup pot that I used, but a canner might work better if you don't mind another pot hanging around.

Cooking the Jam

I used about 4-5 lbs of berries for 4 large Ball jars of jam. Without additional boxes of pectin, I was not able to get the berries as set as I would have liked, but they still set up pretty well. Plus, skimming excess foam from the berries is a delicious preview of your final product. Feel free to eat as much as you can stomach.

Strawberry Jam

If you're starting from freshly picked berries, it will take a couple hours to clean, cut, cook, and can the jam, but it is so worth it. Think about it this way: I picked my berries at 8:00am and by the afternoon (I took time to see a movie) I had jam. From the vine to the jar to my toast in the same day. You can't get any fresher than that.

Jam on Toast

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Strawberry Picking

STRAWBERRY SEASON IS HERE! Strawberries are one of my favorite fruits in the whole world and this year I committed myself to obtaining them from the source. I woke up early last Saturday and drove about 20 minutes north of Durham on Guess Rd. and found myself at Double R Cattle Services. Don't worry about the name, they have strawberry patches too. And no, you don't have to pick them while cows are hovering over you. That could be a good business to get fresh cream with your strawberries, but I don't think that's part of their business model. Anyways, on to the berry picking...

Strawberry Plants

The first thing you may notice is that these plants are laden with strawberries of all sorts of ripeness. Everything from the white flowers to the green nubs to the large red berries. Your goal is to only pick the red berries. The reason behind this is twofold: 1) you get the best sweetness out of red berries, and 2) leaving some of the unripened berries benefits people who come to pick their berries in the next couple of days.

Rows upon Rows

The farm has a large field of strawberries with about 15-20 rows of plants. Everyone gets their own row if there's room and you go to town picking. I like to pick the berries with a little stem still on in case I want pictures later. I don't recommend this, but you can eat a couple berries as you go. You do pay by weight so this is a little shady, but how can you resist not popping one of these red marvels into your mouth?

Berry Picker

You don't have to pick your own berries if you don't want to. You can pick up a freshly picked batch while supplies last. It is a little labor intensive to kneel, squat or bend over to pick all these berries. So the farmers have a device that suspends them over the berry patch while laying down. Don't worry, you shouldn't need this device unless your plan is to pick more than 20 pounds of strawberries. Plus it feels more natural and fun to do it on your own.

Row Flagging

The farmer's system is that they place flags at the end of each row. When you're done picking, you move the flag of a particular row to the point where you stopped. I would recommend being very thorough in picking all the ripe berries in your row because the next group of people will start at your flag and any ripe berries in your "already done" section will go to waste. It is a cleverly simple method, but it works well I think.

Buckets o'Berries

I picked two baskets worth of berries. I may have just been overly excited about going picking, but I felt I drove a half hour to get there so I might as well get my fare share. These two baskets together contained 9 pounds of strawberries that cost $11.25. Not bad for a half hour's work.

Washed Berries

I'm guilty of never washing my fruit when I get it home from the store. But I made an exception for these berries. There was not much dirt on them, but there were bits of straw that definitely would not fit into any of the recipes I had planned for these beauties. After a good wash, I patted them dry and stored them in the fridge. I would recommend using your berries the same day if you can, or maybe even the next day. They are at their peak ripeness when you pick them, so they are only going to get mushier or more dried out as time goes on. Plus, you can brag to your friends and family that the pie you are serving contains berries that just that morning were still hanging on to their plant.

Strawberry Sideshow

The normal berries look absolutely gorgeous, but I'm more interested in the freak show berries that you find. You often have berries with multiple lobes, but some of the others that grow are just downright weird. I had one that looked like a tripod, one with a rhinoceros-like protrusion, and a selection that looked like little octopi with different numbers of leg-buds. Nothing is wrong with these berries and they were every bit as good as the rest, but they are just a bit different.

Strawberry picking was a great experience. I normally relish sleeping in on the weekends, but this was definitely worth sacrificing a little sleep in order to have some of the tastiest berries you can get at your disposal. Plus, this is only the beginning. You still have to decide how to use your red harvest. And believe me, that is quite a dilemma, especially when you can just eat an entire basket by itself.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Chocolate-Mango Whoopie Pies

Mangoes are in season right now and they are life-changingly good. I was slicing one the other day and one taste sent me into a frenzy. Before I knew it the flesh was gone and I was gnawing on the pit. I went out and bought a whole slew of mangoes and, while I was elbow deep in one, I thought to myself, "What else could I do with one of these beauties?" One idea came to mind: whoopie pies!

Chocolate-Mango Whoopie Pies
Adapted from 13 Bakery, makes about 12 pies
1.75 cups flour
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1.5 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup milk
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 mango, peeled, diced
1 tbsp grated ginger
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
8 oz cream cheese, softened
1 tsp vanilla
3 cup powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.
In medium bowl, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the egg and beat to combine. Beat in milk and vanilla. Beat in flour mixture just until combined.

Using an ice cream scoop, drop mounds of batter onto cookie sheet. Try to keep the mounds as round and even as you can because the pie halves will retain whatever shape you give them at this point. In other words, if you make ugly mounds, you'll get ugly pies. Bake 8-12 minutes until top springs back when touched. Cool completely on wire rack.

For the filling, start by cooking the mango in a saucepan over medium heat. Add grated ginger and sugar and cook mixture until the mango is soft. Cool completely. Beat the butter and cream cheese until well combined and fluffy. Add in vanilla and mango mixture and beat until combined. Gradually beat in powdered sugar until mixture is smooth. Feel free to add more powdered sugar if you want a stiffer filling.

To assemble the pies, spread a large dollop of the filling on the bottom of one of the pie halves. Then affix another pie half on top of this (the round sides should both be facing out). I'll leave the quantity of filling to be used up to you since some people like theirs oozing over the sides while others prefer a more modest amount.

Chocolate-Mango Whoopie Pies

These pies were very good. The chocolate in some respects overwhelmed the mango in the middle, but mango definitely made its presence known. Perhaps some sort of ginger or spice cake on the outside may be better next time, but chocolate is the classic flavor. Plus, everyone loved these whoopie pies. They did not quite elicit the yells of "Whoopie!" like the story of this dessert's Amish roots, but that may be because everyone had their mouth full.

Pineapple Hibiscus Cupcakes

Another celebration in lab, so it's time for some small cup-sized delights. I perused my ever-growing collection of cupcake cookbooks for inspiration. Lo and behold, inside of Pamela Clark's Cupcakes I found what I was looking for - pineapple hibiscus cupcakes.

Pineapple Hibiscus Cupcakes
Makes 12 cupcakes
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1.5 cups self-rising flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 cups carrot, grated
3/4 cup crushed pineapple, drained
1.5 tbsp sugar
1.5 tbsp water
12 slices of pineapple, wafer-thin
2 tbsp butter, softened
3 oz cream cheese, softened
1 tsp lemon zest
1.5 cups powdered sugar

Dried Pineapple

The main feature of these cupcakes are some amazingly beautiful "flowers" on top, and it does take some time to create these beauties. First step - dehydrate some pineapple. Mix sugar and water together in a small saucepan and place over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Brush both sides of pineapple slices with this syrup and place on a wire rack over a baking sheet. Bake at 250 degrees for 1 to 1.5 hours until the pineapple is dried and turning brown on the edges.

Making Hibiscus

Immediately after removing the pineapple from the oven, crumble the slices and place them on an egg carton to dry completely. I let mine dry overnight and they were mostly fine, though they probably could have dried for longer to make sure they kept their shape.

For the cakes, combine oil, eggs, flour, sugar, and cinnamon. Add in carrot and crushed pineapple. Divide mixture among 12 baking cups and bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool completely on a wire rack then remove from the muffin pan.

Meanwhile, prepare the frosting. Beat butter and cream cheese in a mixer until smooth and fluffy. Beat in lemon zest. Gradually beat in powdered sugar. Spread frosting on cakes and top with a pineapple flower.

Hibiscus Cupcakes

Flavorwise, these cupcakes were delicious. The cake itself was not too sweet but had good flavors from the pineapple and carrot (plus having fruits and veggies makes these things healthy, right?). The frosting was the sweet counter to the cupcakes with a delightful lemon twist.

Hibiscus Cupcake

Between the cake and the frosting, these were good cupcakes, but the clincher was the flowers. People were genuinely amazed by the them and most thought they were real flowers upon first inspection. Plus, they tasted good with a fruit-leather texture. In the end, this recipe gave both an amazing visual but also delivered on taste.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Sweet Potato Gnocchi

Gnocchi, when done right, are simply marvelous. Italians have taken a potato, a hefty, dense tuber, and crafted a dumpling that is light on the tongue and filling in the tummy. I have attempted gnocchi only once before. I enlisted the help of two friends who, over the course of a few hours, managed to make a disgusting and overworked dough. This time, I'm changing my attack plan - I used sweet potatoes instead of whites and I used a Bon Appetit recipe.

Raw Gnocchi

Firstly, you microwave a few sweet potatoes, let them cool and scoop out the flesh. Add ricotta cheese, Parmesan, brown sugar, salt, and nutmeg. Flour is gradually mixed into all of this. The dough is rolled out into long logs and cut into little, softy, floury gnocchi. You can pass the gnocchi over a fork to give it the characteristic ribs, but I skipped this step since I had about 100 gnocchi and I felt it was too much work.

Cooked Gnocchi

Cook the gnocchi in batches in salted water. It was very easy to see when they were done because they floated to the surface of the water after about a minute. Drain the gnocchi and set aside.

Brown Butter-Sage

Saucy Gnocchi

Melt 2 sticks of butter in a large saucepan and continue to cook until it turns a bit brown and smells nutty. Add in the chopped sage and remove from heat. Working in batches in a skillet, cook the gnocchi in the sauce until they are heated through.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi

These gnocchi turned out great. They were a bit labor-intensive, but well worth it in the end. Sweet potato, brown butter and sage all meld very well. Everything I love about this food was present in this dish. The best part is you savor every bite. You can't eat them too fast or your stomach might explode like a pigeon's after a wedding. So you really get to taste all of the subtle flavors - nuttiness, sage, butter, sweet potato, nutmeg, salt, pepper. Nothing is more satisfying after a food project (other than a good result) than sitting down to really enjoy your hard work.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Orange Leaf

Frozen yogurt is making a comeback. In my mind, frogurt has gone through two phases: 1) being the low-cal alternative to ice cream, and 2) being itself. It may be that our collective palettes are maturing. Or that the tart flavor of the yogurt tastes more "natural." Or maybe we just love things that come in ultra-modern, Asian-ish packages. Whatever the cause, frogurt is in and it's delicious.

Orange Leaf

The newest frozen yogurt shop in the Triangle is Orange Leaf in Chapel Hill's Timberlyne plaza. As you can see from this picture on a Saturday night, this place is popular, and it has good reason to be. If you've read my previous post about Local Yogurt, then you already know that our area is blessed with a wonderful yogurt shop. Local Yogurt serves up four flavors of yogurt plus a large plethora of toppings, all charged a la carte. But Orange Leaf has a different perspective. They have around 15 flavors (plus twists) and lots of toppings. The clincher is that everything is priced by weight. So you can have as much or as little of nearly every flavor in this store possible.

Flavor Roulette

When I first walked in, my mind could not handle all of the possibilities. I would have more pictures of everything if there were not so many people that may have been offended to be filmed. I don't even want to start calculating all the flavor combinations. My plan of attack was to create five mini forgurt sections in my large cup. Without going into too much detail, I tried pomegranate, peanut butter, mango, taro, and pineapple. They also had cheesecake, blueberry, plain, coffee, green tea (not as good as the others), and many more. For toppings, I used Reese's Pieces, brownie, Rice Krispie treat (a little stale), mochi, gummi worms, Rainsinettes, and one of the coolest toppings I've ever come across. They are called bursting boba and they look like differently colored fish eggs. If you're familiar with bubble tea, these are similar to the boba in those drinks. The difference is that these are balls of juice encapsulated in a thin membrane. The slightest pressure on that membrane and *pop* a burst of fruit juice in your mouth. In the end, I had five microcosms of flavor from which to eat on a hot summer night. I love having lots of little flavor options with my food, so needless to say, I was in heaven at Orange Leaf.